Monday, October 26, 2015

Halo 5 - the HaloGAF review

It's odd to come back here after so long, but this tiny corner of the web has always been dedicated to my love for Halo. Seems fitting that I give it some new life to share my thoughts on Halo 5. 

Part of me has always wanted to be a game designer. It’s always been a sort of dream of mine, even though I lack all of the skills required and never bothered to learn them. But the idea of writing a story, of being in charge of a team that creates these experiences that I adore so much, has always spoken to me.

For a long time now, I’ve had an idea in my head about what would be my ideal first-person shooter. The ideas came from a lot of different sources: Halo, Crysis, Mass Effect, Destiny, Titanfall, even my own imagination. It is to be a heavily story-based game. One where shooting, of course, is the main target, but the game doesn’t shy away from taking breaks and letting you soak in information. A game that lets characters be characters, not cardboard cutouts with guns. One where you have access to a lot of different abilities and a lot of different ways to tackle your objectives.

It’s shocking how close Halo 5: Guardians came to achieving this.

It has the mobility. It has the abilities. It has a story that doesn’t require you to watch terminals and read novels, instead relying on characters to share the information with you. It even has missions where you don’t have to shoot anything. You just explore, talk and listen. It’s a bold new direction for Halo, one 343 – for the most part- has pulled off.

343 has stepped away from the scorched earth-policy they so ruthlessly wielded while developing Halo 4. With Halo 5, they show they’re willing to once again embrace that which came before. This manifests in a variety of ways. The English-speaking Covenant, the music and the inclusion of Blue Team being the foremost examples of that.

But not only are they willing to embrace what’s old, they’re also willing to look back at their own creations and change course. Allow me to demonstrate through a direct quote from the game. “Dr. Halsey said the plan would work. I trust her.”

You’d be forgiven to think these are words uttered by the Master Chief or one of his Blue Team compatriots, but you’d be wrong. These are words said by Spartan Jameson Locke, an ex-ONI operative and one of the game’s two playable characters. The treatment Catherine Halsey received at the hands of 343 Industries has been the source of much debate these past few years, and now we get a character that 343 created stating he trusts Halsey. It’s a big step forward.

This doesn’t even just apply to Locke. When Halsey is liberated from the clutches of Jul ‘Mdama, may he rest in peace, she isn’t treated like a criminal. She’s not held at gunpoint or locked in a tiny room. Sure, Palmer takes her firmly by the one arm she still has left when escorting her out, but this appears to be more due to the urgency of the situation rather than because she is considered a war criminal.

Palmer herself has changed, as well. Her personality has been dialed back considerably, becoming more of a professional Spartan as opposed to the jock that hated on nerds she was during Spartan Ops. Over the course of the game it becomes abundantly clear that Palmer and Halsey are even starting to develop some kind of mutual respect for one another. Considering the events that occur at the end of the game, it’ll be interesting to see how this relationship develops.

That’s not to say that the in-universe criticism of the ethics of the original SPARTAN-II program has ceased. Buck still utters words of disgust when someone mentions reading the original files. Halsey is even referred to as a monster by the most unlikely of people. It’s all just a lot more nuanced and feels less like a deliberate attempt to undermine everything that came before.

And now for the elephant in the room: yes, you play as Locke for the majority of the game. Twelve out of fifteen missions. The ones where you step into the Master Chief’s power-armored boots are a bit longer than Locke’s story missions, but you’ll still end up playing as this SPARTAN-IV for the better part of the game.

And you know what? That’s okay.

Locke isn’t all that different from the Master Chief. He’s been given his orders. The rest of Fireteam Osiris instills a bit more personality into the matters, but apart from one clich├ęd attempt at a "we've come a long way"-speech they never feel as though they're trying to steal the spotlight from the man in the green armor. This story is still about him.

Whether you’re controlling Locke or the Chief, your teammates are always at your side. They’re pretty competent, as long as you don’t set the game’s difficulty to Legendary. Their A.I. is not built to accommodate that difficulty. Taking cover is an unknown concept to them, as is staying at range. Mark an enemy for attack and they’ll all charge forward, whether they’re holding a sniper rifle, rocket launcher or shotgun. Equip them with the right weapons, however, and they can make even the most difficult encounters in the game at least a bit easier to handle.

One such encounter is with the Warden Eternal. We’ve all seen him at the end of the E3 gameplay demo. He makes more than one appearance in the game, and all are as a boss you have to beat. He’s also 343’s biggest mistake in this entire game. His character is cool, but fighting him absolutely isn’t. Not only is he armed with several insta-kill attacks, but he’s almost always accompanied by several other enemies. Your teammates are quick to point out that the core on his back is vulnerable to damage, but their A.I. isn’t advanced enough to take advantage of it. Fighting him twice in two back-to-back missions is bad enough, but then later on the game decides to throw you at him in duplicate and even triplicate. Considering all that went well with the game, it’s a baffling inclusion and one I hope they learn from for their next game.

Because there’s a lot of things this game does do well. The combat is fantastic. The movement is great. Most of the weapons are useful, including the redesigned Forerunner weapons. The new Binary Rifle feels like a glorious mix between a Sniper Rifle and Reach’s Focus Rifle.  Best of all, the game keeps a silky smooth framerate as you’re playing.

The cutscenes are pretty enough, but 343 has the weird tendency to cut them off right when they’re about to get interesting. Roland, the A.I. aboard the Infinity, at one point throws a great tantrum about why everyone sees Cortana as a threat… And then fades to black before anyone can reply. When we next see him, he’s accepted everything and doesn’t mention it ever again. Considering the strength of their storytelling in this game, moments like these are odd and very out-of-place.

343 pulled off something I thought they weren’t able to. They instilled an air of mystery into their story. When the Chief goes AWOL and you learn Cortana is not as dead as she at first seemed, you actually start having doubts. Cortana’s goals and the Chief’s motives are kept under wraps for the first part of the game. As you’re chasing Chief, the game takes on a bit of a mystery tone not wholly different from the feel you got when playing ODST.

What’s most impressive about the whole thing, however, is how 343 played us. In the marketing, we see Locke confronting the Chief on a scarred and desolate planet. We see two arch-enemies facing each other. None of this ends up in the game. It was all part of a false flag operation to keep us distracted from what was really going to happen. Media made us believe this game would be The Terminator mixed with The Avengers, but they played us like a fiddle. This game is Halo’s The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a tale of mystery that turns very dark and leaves us on a somber note of uncertainty.

After I beat the game, I started monitoring the spoiler thread on GAF. People were clutching at straws, trying to piece together the bits and pieces of the plot they could find. It was very interesting to see and read.

And then someone leaked the plot online.

Immediately the hate parade began. People started judging the story 343 told, and the way they told it, judged on a poorly-written summary half a paragraph long. They started complaining how 343 once again failed. How Halo's future was completely ruined. As someone who'd experienced the story first-hand, it was appalling to see the vitriol being spewed. People summarizing the story, getting several key details wrong in the process, and deciding this game wasn't worth the effort of playing.

It pained me that I couldn't say anything.

I readily admit I've never been 343's most fervent supporter. Halo 4 and the Master Chief Collection, while enjoyable, left a bad taste in my mouth. But as I watched this hate unfurl, championed by some forum dwellers with a false sense of superiority over "knowing all the details", I suddenly realized what it must be like to be on 343's side of the fence. To see people immediately spewing hate over the Smartlink feature before they had a chance to explain it. To see people bitch and moan when the ratio of Locke and Chief missions was revealed. To not be given a chance to make the right impression, in this culture of spoilers and instant gratification.

To me, Halo 5: Guardians told a wonderful story. It's simple and to the point. The necessary concepts are explained naturally through the two Spartan teams' dialogues. Most importantly, however, it leaves me feeling positive about the future of the franchise. It's not yet perfectly told, but let us not forget that Bungie never got it completely right either (#rememberreach). It feels like 343 is actively trying to embrace that studio’s legacy, however, while still maintaining their own stamp on the franchise. The gameplay is simply fantastic and the campaign missions, bar some horribly executed boss fights, are a joy to play through.

I’ll leave you on this note. This is HaloGAF. We’ve been through some terrible times, and through some very good ones. Halo 5: Guardians will, undoubtedly, be divisive again. People will criticize the story, as they’ve done ever since the first Halo came out. People will complain about the gameplay. People will complain about that hilarious love poem an Elite wrote for Palmer in an audio log. I encourage everyone to try the game. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. 

Ninja out.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Wednesday, December 7, 2011






"Home Sweet Home"